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Iowa Plant Charged With Hiring Minors

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Iowa Plant Charged With Hiring Minors

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Iowa Plant Charged With Hiring Minors

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

We're going to turn now to Iowa and growing evidence of mistreatment of workers at the country's largest kosher meat packing plant.

In May, immigration authorities raided Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa and arrested nearly half its workers. In the past couple of weeks, two floor managers have pleaded guilty to conspiring to hire illegal immigrants. As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, the mass arrests have prompted a lot of allegations from former workers.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: When Cruz Rodriguez Moncada(ph) left each morning for Agriprocessors where she helped package chicken breasts, she never knew what time she'd return home. She says some days she'd labor 12 hours or more with few breaks or even time to eat lunch. Some weeks, she logged 65 hours. But you couldn't always tell from her pay check.

Ms. CRUZ RODRIGUEZ MONCADA (Employee): (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: Supposedly, they paid us overtime, she says. But they always cheated us on hours. Moncada earned $7.75 an hour. She says she never complained much. As an illegal immigrant from Mexico, she assumed she had no rights.

But now that the raid has left her under home detention and her former supervisor has reportedly skipped the country to avoid arrest, Moncada figures she has nothing to lose.

Ms. MONCADA: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: We suffered many humiliations under my supervisor, she says. He'd shout at us to move faster. If we arrive five or 10 minutes later, he'd duck us a day's pay. And if we complained, he'd say, go on then. There are 20 others waiting to take your place.

Bartolo Bustamante(ph) used to clean the trailers where turkeys and chickens were kept. He says he slipped and fell once, hurting his back. A doctor told him he shouldn't work.

Mr. BARTOLO BUSTAMANTE (Employee): (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: My boss has told me, if you don't show up, we won't pay you. So, I had two days where my sisters had to help me stand up. They put my shirt on for me. They practically had to carry me into the plant so I could work.

A court affidavit suggests Agriprocessors managers knew many workers were illegal and knew some of them were just teenagers. Iowa's labor department started investigating the plant before the raid.

In a report issued after, Commissioner Dave Neil says his agency found at least 57 underage workers were at the plant, some as young as 13 in violation of state law.

Mr. DAVE NEIL (Commissioner, Iowa Labor Department): People employed in this agency for over 30 years say they have never seen anything of this magnitude before.

Mr. MENACHEM LUBINSKY (Spokesman for Agriprocessors): The company has a policy that it does not employ anyone under the age of 18. And if they were people employed there, they use false documentation to present themselves.

LUDDEN: Menachem Lubinsky is a hired spokesman for Agriprocessors. He notes the company did fire several minors they'd discovered. Since the raid, Agriprocessors has also hired a former U.S. attorney as a compliance officer. Despite the guilty pleas by two floor managers, Lubinsky insists the charges will not reach higher up.

Mr. LUBINSKY: It is not uncommon in many, many employment settings where there is a culture amongst the immigrants that they almost have the set-up on how they can get to work there. And the company has no knowledge of this.

(Soundbite of chattering)

Unidentified Woman #1: Come on. Everybody's going to be in a circle.

Unidentified Woman #2: Right, right, yeah.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Unintelligible), come over here.

LUDDEN: In Postville, a town of just a few square blocks and a couple thousand people, everyone's felt the impact of the raid, as summer camps, stores and apartment houses have emptied out. The mounting stories of abuse have also prompted some soul searching.

Lutheran pastor Steve Bracket says, like a lot of people, he knew most of the immigrant children would leave school after eighth grade to go work.

Pastor STEVE BRACKETT (St. Paul Lutheran Church): Now, for whatever reason, I'm assuming farm jobs or what - I just really had no clue that they would be working at the meatpacking plant. I think, back now, when I think, I'm an idiot, I should have assumed that they would go in there and work because it was safe to do that.

LUDDEN: Safe, meaning, no one was going to turn them in. Elver Herrera(ph) worked seven years at Agriprocessors and is frustrated that managers called to account earlier.

Mr. ELVER HERRERA (Employee): I told with a lot of people. The problem is people never listen.

LUDDEN: Herrera says he personally told the plant manager about the mistreatment of employees. Conservative rabbis and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union had raised alarm bells about the kosher slaughterhouse. And last year, workers staged a protest walkout.

Mr. HERRERA: When you have a lot complains, you have to know something is wrong. And the complain started like what, 2001, 2002, '03, '04, '05, '06, what are you waiting for?

LUDDEN: For now, the Agriprocessors plant continues to operate within evolving array of new workers, and federal prosecutors continue their investigation.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

BLOCK: And tomorrow on our program, Jennifer has the story of who is filling the hundreds of jobs left empty after the raid in Postville.

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